Chapter 3 – Wales
“Of course it can become monotonous; paddling a kayak for ten hours a day or more. But that was always part of the challenge – something to get my head around and it certainly gave me time and space to think.”
After a good nights kip I was ‘live from Lundy’ on Radio Cornwall at 7.40am. I sensed that they were giving me a little bit more credibility now that I had ‘done the Scillies’. It was quite bizarre sat on a rock in a field full of lambs, on an island in the middle of the Bristol Channel, talking on the radio.
It meant I was again a bit late starting, I should have been off the northern tip of Lundy by 0900hrs but instead left the Landing Beach at that time, and had to fight a bit of tide around South West Point. I soon had the wind on my back however and within an hour I was northwest of the rock stacks affectionately named the Hen and Chickens on a heading of 330 degrees.
The wind and chop was on my rear nearside quarter which meant that I only got the occasional surf. Most of the time the kayak just slopped about but I was able to maintain a steady speed of 8kph according to my GPS. After an hour I glanced astern – it was as if I had been towing Lundy behind me, I hardly seemed to have left it behind at all. The GPS showed 50km to go to St Govan’s Head so I resolved to break it down into 10km chunks, to help me get my head around the distance. I used to regularly thrash out 10km on the River Exe, ‘5 laps of the river’ as we used to say. But it was difficult to get into any sort of rhythm as the boat would take off on a wave and then slow to a virtual standstill as the wave passed me by and I sank into the trough, my bow pointing skywards.
I was not really in the mood for it to be honest with you. It was my first big crossing on my own and at 26 nautical miles I needed to be up for it. Instead I felt lethargic, as if I really couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps it was the lack of drama – there is something significant about the crossing from Land’s End to the Scillies, a sense of exposure, an ‘edge of the world’ experience. Here I was just crossing the Bristol Channel; it didn’t have the same feel about it and the adrenalin wasn’t flowing. There wasn’t much to look at either in terms of points of reference. The north Devon coast was far to my right and there seemed to be no land ahead of me at all. I saw only one ship in the far distance and there were no helicopters or planes to keep me company. I was not alone though as the sea all about me was dotted with sea birds, mainly razorbills but also lots of guillemots and I saw one puffin which flew backwards and forwards in front of me as if it was trying to put me off my heading. Later I saw some majestic gannets, flying in pairs, their sleek dagger like profiles so perfectly designed. There is no sight more spectacular than being surrounded by diving gannets. I watched one bird slowly gain height, using the wind for lift with only the occasional wing beat. Once it was a hundred feet or so above me it circled, looking intently down into the water, searching for its next target. Suddenly it stalled, folded its wings back to create a perfect missile shape and dived with breathtaking speed, plunging down into the sea just a few feet from me. It was gone for just a few seconds before it surfaced in a rather ungainly sprawl of body and wings, swallowing whatever it was that it had just caught. It got itself back into order and with considerable effort, took off again; leaving no trace of the violent end it had just delivered to the unsuspecting fish.
With about 30km still to go I saw the faint lines of the chimney stacks of the Texaco oil refinery located in Pembrokeshire Dock. It was another hour before I could clearly see the cliffs of St Govan’s Head. The limestone cliffs are uniform in height at around 50metres, with a featureless hinterland. For the last 20km I finally got my head down and started to graft, keen to get inshore before 1600hrs by which time I would need to have made a call to the Coastguard. The steep seas made it an uncomfortable ride but I was making good progress and I passed the St Govan’s Shoal light buoy before giving the ‘Coasties’ a call on my VHF radio. Apparently it was good to hear my voice which was nice. They reminded me of the strong wind warning (F6) by the end of the day and I advised them of my intentions and headed into a beach I could see beneath the sheer cliffs for a pit stop. The clapotis was awful as I approached the shore, the flooding tide carrying me westwards. That was fine, it was the direction I wanted to go in but it meant I had to change my mind about which beach I was going to land on. I spied a small beach dwarfed by a huge natural arch. I pushed hard through the bouncing waves, into the small cove only to find that the ‘beach’ was full of rock and there was no way I could land without damaging my boat. I had been on the water for eight and a half hours and need to get out! I followed the coast west, the tide flowing hard even though it was only neaps. The kayak went airborne several times through some very confused seas and I finally got some adrenalin flowing through my veins! It was a hairy ride but I was starting to enjoy myself. I remembered to radio the Coastguard to ask for permission to pass through the CastlemartinFiringRange and then at last I paddled into the beautiful bay of Freshwater West and made landfall. Nine and a half hours in the kayak without a break was a new record for me. I was not done yet though and had a further five miles to paddle around into Milford Haven and the RNLI lifeboat station in Angle Bay.
As I came into the estuary I switched on the mobile and rang Linda to say I was safe. I also rang a friend, Peter Bray who had offered to put me up. There was no reply but then I heard a shout and saw someone frantically waving from the rocks. It could only be Peter. I turned and headed into WestAngleBeach. It was great to finish what had been a fairly hard day and Peter shoved a very welcome cheese butty in my hand. Peter knows what a kayaker needs after a forty mile paddle. Peter Bray is an outdoor instructor and former member of the SAS and in 1996 paddled around the mainland of Great Britain in a double sea kayak with Steve MacDonald who became the first partially sighted person to paddle around country. Peter has also completed the 125 mile Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race eleven times! In 2001 Peter became the first person to kayak across the North Atlantic. The unsupported 3,000-mile journey, from Newfoundland to Ireland, took him 76 days in a specially designed 27-foot kayak becoming the first person to make the crossing without the assistance of sails. I had done a bit of work on the boat which Kirton Kayaks constructed for him – a high tech craft made of honeycomb epoxy. It was a fascinating project and only someone with Peter’s background (he is ex-SAS), courage and tenacity could have succeeded. His first attempt, in 2000, nearly ended in disaster when a faulty bilge pump valve sank his boat. The US Coastguard later attributed his survival in the near-freezing waters of the Labrador Current to his SAS training. He spent 36hrs in his life raft, naked from the waist down, keeping himself warm by constantly pumping out the life raft which had also developed a leak. He lost all feeling in his feet for months and had to teach himself to walk again. Unperturbed he returned to Newfoundland again a year later and this time completed the crossing receiving very little recognition for this historic achievement which cost him his house and very nearly his life. He has only recently found a publisher for his book “Kayak across the Atlantic” which is an important addition to the annals of sea kayaking.
Peter took me home to his stunning apartment in a marina complex on the DaugleddauRiver. His partner Maria arrived home later having successfully completed her Level 2 Open Canoe coaching award. Their apartment was full of memorabilia, books and maps, all relating to their adventurous exploits. In the bay window overlooking the river was a Concept 2 rowing machine which Peter was using to train for his next project, an attempt on the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic in a rowing boat and the first crossing from Newfoundland to the U.K. Peter would be part of a team of four, a challenge in itself for a man use to doing things his way. They would be rowing as pairs, taking turns to row and sleep, hoping to cross in less than the current record of 55 days.
[The attempt nearly ended in disaster when their boat was struck by a rogue wave in the Western Apporaches and was broken in two. Peter was declared a hero by his fellow crew because he had to dive underwater repeatedly to free their liferaft that hed become snagged in the wreckage of the stricken boat.]
After spag bol and a glass of wine I was ready for bed and with a poor forecast for the following day, I was not terribly anxious to get underway and I chose to take a rest day. Peter was a perfect host, taking me down to Angle Lifeboat Station to collect my storage box of food which had arrived without incident. I had packed six storage boxes with food prior to my departure and these had been sent to various lifeboat stations that I had selected on my route around the British Ilses and I was relieved that the first one had arrived in time.
We met Richard Roch; Mechanic and Jerry Rees; Coxswain at the Lifeboat Station and we chatted about this and that including some of the funnier rescues they had been involved in. They were fascinating to talk to and the lifeboat a credit to them both – it was absolutely immaculate. Both Peter and I are frustrated ‘wannabe’ lifeboatmen but neither of us lives close enough to a lifeboat station to be considered even as members of the shore crew. You have to live within half a mile of a lifeboat station and for the Angle lifeboat that means you have to live in the village. For Richard Roch being a lifeboatman was a family tradition – both his father and grandfather served on the lifeboat and he was clearly very proud of his heritage, a rare thing in a young man. Similar to those at the Lizard and Padstow, the Angle lifeboat is one of a few that use the slipway launch method and it must be quite an awesome thing to be onboard as the vessel slides down the steep ramp into the sea, some considerable distance below.
Peter took me to look at the sea conditions off St Anne’s Head and in Jack Sound between the island of Skomer and the mainland. It was slack and the notorious Wildgoose tide race was barely visible between Skokholm and Skomer. The wind had reduced considerably and the sea state with it. I would have been fine out there and started to have pangs of guilt for being on dry land. At least my body was having a chance to recover from the long crossing yesterday and I would not need another rest day for a while.
I had a kip in the afternoon, sleeping for a good couple of hours. I then unpacked my box of food and re-stocked my food dry bags, one for lunch times and snacks, one for dinner and breakfast. I thought that I was probably carrying too much food but until I got further into the expedition I would not know for certain. I decided it was better to be safe…than hungry.
Peter and Maria took me to one of their favourite pubs, the St Govan. A climber’s pub, it is decorated with photographs of some very hardcore climbers doing some very hardcore climbs on the sea cliffs that I had paddled past the previous day. We had to have a quick look at the sea whilst we were there – no sign of Lundy on the horizon but a faint rainbow where it should have been. A glorious sunset suggested a good day to follow.
There was no rush to get on the water the following morning. I had to wait until just before low water before I could attempt what was quite a technical paddling leg. The plan was to ferry glide the last of the ebbing tidal stream across to the islands of Skokholm and Skomer, then catch the start of the flood across St Bride’s Bay to Ramsey Island and use the peak flow to whiz past St David’s Head. Most people only attempt to get as far as Whitesands in one hit, by setting out before the end of the ebb I reckoned I could get well beyond Whitesands if I really went for it. In the back of my mind was the possibility of making it as far as Fishguard but that would mean getting around Strumble Head as well, which is another major headland.
Having said my ‘goodbyes’ to Peter I headed out to St Anne’s Head at the entrance to Milford Haven in perfect conditions with hardly a breath of wind. As I approached the headland the Dyfed-Powys Police RIB pulled up along side. They had heard that I was about and stopped for a quick chat. It was good to see them – what a great job they have! They were off to meet the Russian square rigger – the same one that I had seen in Mount’s Bay – which was due to dock in Milford Haven that afternoon. Its tall masts could just be seen coming over the horizon.
A cool breeze set in from the northwest as I headed out to Skokholm, just enough to chill the backs of my hands. A very pretty little lighthouse sits on the end of Skokholm which demanded a photo stop, not easy in the bouncing swell which was exploding with bursts of pure white on the black rock. The Wildgoose Race was evident further out to sea. I tucked in tight then worked hard to ferry glide across the fast current that wanted to take me offshore and into the race.
I was soon in the eddy on the back side of Skomer. As I approached the island famous for its Puffins, sure enough there were loads of the little fellas, bobbing about in small groups. They seemed unconcerned as I paddled past, swimming just far enough out of the way to let me past. There is a lot of fuss made about the lack of puffins in Cornwall. Here there were hundreds, maybe thousands. Why they should have abandoned their old Cornish haunts in favour of this island is a bit of a mystery but is probably due to the level of disturbance and the number of rats. The west coast of Skomer is wonderful with cliffs and grassy hillocks covered in birds of various species. I was careful to stay well out of the exclusion zone and took my time, marvelling at the natural spectacle of hundreds of birds flying to and fro to their roosting ledges just feet above my head. I took a brief break on the only landing site on the island which is right next to the main breeding beach for the resident grey seals. There must have been fifty or more lounging on the pebble shore.
I figured the tide would now be in my favour and headed north out into St Bride’s Bay towards Ramsey Island, famous for The Bitches tidal rapid that runs through Ramsey Sound. My course would take me to the outside of the island however which is a shame as I would like to have had a play in the C-Trek on the main wave. The north westerly breeze had increased considerably in strength – typical! Just when I thought I would be making some real progress my speed was cut in half as the kayak slammed into the short steep chop. By checking my transits though I could tell the tide was doing its thing and I was making deceptively good d progress towards RamseyIsland and its tide races. I was not too sure what I would find on the back of Ramsey with the tide at full tilt but was excited by the prospect and I was not disappointed. There was action a plenty with over falls and races mixed in with a sizeable swell. The tourist RIB’s that head out from Whitesands and St. Justinians were giving the thrill seeking customers what they wanted, but I was surely getting the best ride in town.
I was soon past Ramsey and heading north east towards St David’s Head. The northwest wind seemed to be second guessing me and remained on my nose. It didn’t matter, the tide was more than a match for it and I was soon accelerating past St David’s at six knots with very little effort. I could see Stumble Head, the lighthouse flashing four times, pausing for eight. The question in my mind was would I be able to get there and beyond to the safety of Fishguard harbour? Of course I would, I told myself and pulled little bit harder just in case.
As I paddled my mind drifted back six years to the first weekend in August 1998 when three of us had set out to break the record for the fastest crossing of the St George’s Channel of the Irish Sea in sea kayaks (Preseli Challenge).
The record is still there to be broken. Since our attempt in 1998 Jim’s K2 partner, Irishman Mick O’Meara has completed the crossing in a faster time but he went the other way, from Ireland to Wales which in theory has to be quicker as you get more tidal assistance. For me personally it was just another step towards my ultimate goal – the circumnavigation of the whole of the UK and Ireland and now I was here again attempting just that. I kept reminding myself that this was it; this was the realisation of my childhood dream and I was so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity.
Fatigue brought me back to the present. I called the coastguard at 1800hrs as arranged and advised them I was carrying on: destination Fishguard, ETA: 2000hrs. During the next couple of hours I became really tired. The tide reduced in strength and once I had rounded Strumble Head I was into a reverse current that soon became the ebb as the tide turned. I tucked in tight once more and used the eddies behind every rocky outcrop, determined to make Fishguard by my ETA.
The sun was about set as I slid around the last point and into bay. Now I needed to find somewhere to camp. I discounted the busy ferry port and headed for the attractive little harbour of old Fishguard finding a beach with a patch of grass that would do very nicely for a bed. No sooner had I pulled the boat up than a local chap offered to buy me a pint should I fancy popping over to the pub later on. Nice welcome! The only trouble was that I had a lot of expensive and irreplaceable kit with the kayak, including this lap top and I could not risk leaving it, even for a beer! It was ten o’clock before I ate dinner and then I didn’t really fancy it: noodles with Dolmio Stir-in sauce and a very dodgy salami sausage.
The following morning was perfectly still. I rose with the sun and was ready to head out on the high seas by 9.00am. Just as I was about to leave the slipway where I had ‘moored’ the kayak whilst I did my early morning ablutions in the public lavatory, an open boat with two fishermen on board pulled up at the slip. I helped them unload their boxes of shellfish. One of the fishermen proudly showed off his prize catch, a massive lobster weighing several kilos and the biggest I have ever seen. The old fella looked forlorn with elastic bands around its huge claws making it powerless to fight back. I suggested that he should take it to an aquarium but I think the fisherman was thinking more of his bank balance. He reckoned it was about thirty years old. What a shame such an old man of the sea was going to end up being boiled to feed some over weight, over fed, over rich Spaniard which is where it was likely to end up. It makes no sense to me. The fisherman explained that he normally gets paid about eight pound a kilo, but the old fella would be worth a bit less than the smaller, plate sized lobsters that the restaurants want. The minimum legal size that can be landed is 9cm from the head to the start of the tail. He told me that to achieve this size the lobster is already eight years old. I have always had a romantic notion that I could become a fisherman. The truth is I would not have the stomach for it.
The wind was on my back at last! The forecast was for it to build during the day with a seven predicted later. I was on completely new territory now. I had never paddled this stretch of coast before and I was pleasantly surprised. The cliffs formed of sedimentary rocks had been twisted and buckled into bizarre patterns by tectonic forces and the more select ledges were occupied by colonies of guillemots and their razorbill neighbours. As I approached they would peel off like someone scattering confetti in a breeze, despite my attempt to keep my distance and not disturb them. They flew out to sea, did a quick circuit of me to check me out then headed back in, hopefully finding the right ledge to land on in all the confusion.
I stopped for a brief and early lunch in Cardigan Bay before carrying on, forever north. The tide had been against me all morning but now the wind was picking up I was making good progress. It got fairly exciting as I crossed some of the small bays, the wind whipping the tops off the waves, sending spume in streaks across surface of the sea before me. The C-Trek handled superbly despite the rudder blade being a little too small for such a large kayak. Unfortunately I had not had time to shape a larger blade and the C-Trek is actually designed to have a drop down skeg fitted as standard. I have always preferred a rudder and have had many discussions with sea kayaking purists about their pros and cons. It is in conditions like this that a rudder comes into its own, when it is possible to link waves together to produce surf runs several hundred metres long. As the bow of the kayak points skywards and the stern of the kayak is deep in a trough, by angling the body and with fine adjustments of the rudder, operated via a butterfly bar footrest, the kayak can be pointed directly down wind, ready. As the nose of the kayak drops down into the trough and levels out, three or four really hard pulls keeps the kayak’s momentum going, then as the stern starts to lift as the following wave picks the kayak up, I give it full power, matching the kayak’s speed to that of the wave; suddenly with a gentle hiss the kayak is planing, its speed now almost limitless. With a roar the wave crest behind collapses and the kayak lunges forwards, hurtling into the trough ahead. By carefully flicking the rudder left and right, I keep the kayak from broaching, maintaining the speed by increasing my stroke rate and length. Now I am looking to connect through to a wave either side of me as the wave crest directly behind loses its energy. Another flick of rudder and a tilt of the body and we are on again, accelerating down the face of another wave, spray fanning out either side of the kayak only to be whipped away by the wind. It is exhilarating stuff and demands total concentration but by the end of three or four runs like that I have eaten up several hundred metres of coastline in just a few seconds.
It was tiring though and by 4.00pm when I reached New Quay, I was in two minds whether to push on despite there being plenty of daylight left. I hedged my bets by collecting some fresh water and having made my phonecalls decided to paddle on until I found a suitable campsite. That was easier said than done on this coast as the beaches are made of boulders and pebbles and with a small surf running I could not find a suitable landing for my heavily laden kayak. It was beyond Aberaeron that I finally found a spot, where an old groyne had produced a small channel through the worst boulders and there was just enough grass on top of a low mud and pebble cliff to pitch my tent. The wind was now howling and the rain coming. By the time I was ashore and changed, the rain had arrived and I hastily got the tent up, tying it off to a wire fence to make sure we were still in situ in the morning. As I wrote my diary the wind was gusting Force 7 and the rain was as constant as a garden hose. It was a noisy night with the surf crashing on the pebble beach just feet away!
Sunday dawned cold, grey and windy. I knew I had a hard day ahead of me. My goal was Barmouth, which hit the national headlines recently when two men, the harbourmaster and his assistant who were also lifeboat men, were lost feared drowned whilst putting out moorings for the season. It was another reminder of how the sea can catch out even the most experienced. They had just had the funeral for one of the men, the other was still missing.
Perhaps I should describe to those that have not had the pleasure, the regime that has to be adhered to when doing a multi-day sea kayak expedition. Firstly, whoever invented baby wipes – I love you! I do not enjoy being dirty but it is just about impossible to wash most days due to lack of available fresh water and the trade off between staying dirty and staying warm. Wet wipes whilst rather environmentally unfriendly do allow you to keep a modicum of cleaniless in the most intimate areas. When I first wake up I have a look outside and check the conditions. Depressed I then turn the radio on to cheer me up and try to catch a weather forecast to see if it is going to improve. I know it isn’t because I have already had the outlook from the Coastguard the previous evening which promises more of the same. But at least listening to the news keeps me abreast of what is going on out in the real world, outside of the expedition bubble that I exist in. I then have a bit of a wash with a couple of baby wipes and it is surprising how much better that makes you feel. Breakfast,consists of muesli with powdered milk, just warmed through enough to get a bit of heat on board, and this particular morning for a real treat I made myself a hot chocolate.
Then I pack up my night things, sleeping bag, ThermaRest, headtorch and other bits and pieces. This much exertion is normally enough to get the bowel woken up, such that I need to go to the toilet fairly urgently. Now this is one issue I haven’t really discussed before but it needs to be said because I know you are wondering. I try to find as discreet a place as possible, where my desposit will not be disturbed by dogs or, god forbid another human, and I bury it as deep as I can. I know it’s not ideal but I have thought about taking it with me in a nappy sack but to be honest with you, I get enough funny looks when I turn up at a beach without producing a bag of my own faeces out of the kayak!
So that bit dealt with I then proceed to pack all my gear into the allotted dry bags keeping my dry clothing on until the very last minute, when I have the ultimate pleasure of putting on wet paddling kit. It is a standard expedition system of having sets of wet and dry kit, keeping them separate and protecting the dry kit as if your life depends on it. The wet kit I hang on a suitable fence or tree and if I am lucky it rains overnight and it gets a rinse through. If I am really lucky it blows dry by morning. No such luck this morning however and I grit my teeth and strip naked, putting on my wet as quickly as possible including my Yak salopettes and Kaylx cag. Once changed, I then carry the boat down to the water’s edge and load the dry bags into the kayak’s hatches in a particular order to ensure it all fits. Running up and down the beach to the kayak stops the shivers from setting in and with the routine now well rehearsed, I can be underway in about twenty minutes from having first put on the wet clothes.
I paddle off very gently at first, allowing my joints to warm up and my hands to soften. Whilst I have had very few blisters the hard calluses take a while to conform to the shape of the paddle shaft and can be quite painful at first. After about half an hour my hands are fine and within an hour I am back ‘in the groove’ and can start applying more effort to each stroke. I find I was strongest in the mornings when I could turn out some good mileage. Depending on whether or not I stopped for lunch determined how good I felt in the afternoon. Sometimes I had to forgo lunch altogether making do with NRG and 9bars, either because I could not get out, for example when crossing from Lundy to St Govan’s Head or because the weather was so grim that to stop meant I would get so cold that the energy lost trying to stay warm canceled out the benefit from the extra food I had been able to consume. The main criteria for determining when I had to go ashore was the need to go to the loo and I have urinated in some very remote and obscure places I can tell you!
My first stop was Aberystwyth which I had visited once before on geography field trip whilst at college in London. The less said about our exploits on that outing the better! The coastline from New Quay to Aberystwyth is fairly drab in comparison to most other parts of the Welsh coast. I passed some dreary looking caravan sites, with stone beaches and not a lot else. Everywhere was quiet; in fact there was little sign of life at all. A couple of miles from Aberystwyth the sun had come out and the inshore lifeboat, an Atlantic 75 sped past in the opposite direction. It was Sunday and they were out for a blast (sorry, honing their skills). I could see Aberystwyth from a long way away across the gentle curve of East Cardigan Bay but it was nearly midday before I passed the breakwater turning right, into the harbour and nearly getting caught out by steep surf that was jacking up as a result of the opposing river flow rushing out to meet the sea. The RNLI flag flew proudly over the brand new lifeboat station that was being kept ship shape by one of the shore crew busy hosing down the concrete slipway. I explained who I was and what I was doing, requested some water and directions into town – I needed to find a cash point. They could not have been more helpful and offered to give me a lift. I declined explaining it was nice to stretch my legs and set off on foot still dressed in my dripping wet paddling kit. I must have looked a state but I cared not. Leaving the harbour with its new marina complex and walking through the side streets towards the town centre, I began to appreciate what an attractive town Aberystwyth is, with lots of cafes and pubs, many with seating outside and customers enjoying the spring sunshine. A Victorian seaside resort and University town, it has been described as the Brighton of Wales which does not do it justice. It has attracted a lot of investment and is vibrant and prosperous yet retains its 19th Century dignity.
Having obtained some cash and purchased some fresh food – all reduced for a quick sale, I made my way back to the harbour taking a detour along the seafront. The cold, brisk wind was keeping most people wrapped up despite the sunshine. I had a pleasant chat with some of the crew of the lifeboat before setting off again, paddling out through the surf breaking on the reefs that guard the entrance to the harbour, now fully exposed at low tide. I headed north, the wind increasingly in my face. After a short stretch of cliff the coastline flattened out as I passed Borth on the approach to the mouth of the River Dovey. Something airborne caught my eye, was it a UFO? Was I going mad? As I got closer I could see it was a huge kite, now joined by several others, seemingly with no strings attached, floating free like very colourful miniature spaceships searching for some poor unsuspecting earthling to beam up. For ages I could not see anyone attached to these flying machines and they entertained me with a graceful if rather un-choreographed ballet as I plugged away into the headwind. You can probably tell I was trying to occupy my mind with other things and not get frustrated by my slow progress. As I drew closer to where the kite surfers were doing their stuff I was unsure who was in control, the surfers or the kites as the massive wings dragged them not so much over the waves but through them. One guy was clearly much more expert than the rest and took great delight in buzzing me – at least he had the decency to wave as he sped past in his short sleeve summer wetsuit – poser!
I decided to try an alternative approach to crossing the mouth of the Dovey estuary. I could see broken waves far out to sea as the surf crashed on the exposed sandbars. I knew the tide would be coming in and I didn’t fancy paddling against that as well as the head wind to get far enough out to sea to avoid the white water. I spotted a channel on the inside and headed in through the confused surf. I was stoked with the way the C-Trek handled in surf, it was so much more forgiving than the Inuk, which does have a tendency to catch when surfing sideways. In the C-Trek I could quite happily brace onto the face of a four foot breaking wave and let it take me ‘bongo sliding’ shoreward. Once inside the break zone I threaded my way between sand banks, paddle blades scraping sand. At one stage I saw a seagull walking along the sand. When I glanced right again a minute or so later I did a double take – he was still level with me and keeping pace, so slow was my progress across the river mouth.
I found my way into the main river channel and deep water. Ahead of me was a sand bar, still largely dry, blocking my path – my gamble had not paid off. I would have to go out around the port can marking the end of this sand bar after all. I tried to cut the corner, turning inside the can, the tide was rushing in and at one stage I felt I was being carried sideways back the way I had come, the kayak barely afloat in a few inches of water. It was a bit like surfing the start of the Seven Bore, where the front wave carries you at speeds of up to ten knots over sand banks and mud flats and where a wrong move and capsize could easily result in a broken neck there is so little water underneath you. A small wave fortuitously spun my bow back out to sea and I sprinted to reach some deeper water. Diving through the breaking surf, head down, arms pumping, I made it out the back of the surf zone. Breathing heavily I checked the kit on my deck to make sure it was all still there. I resolved to give any river mouths a bit more respect in the future and give them a wide berth.
Another long plod followed into the wind but the apex of the curve in the coastline was now visible and once I had turned the corner the wind would no longer be square in my face. The smooth slopes of the Cambrian Mountains were now behind me and the steeper sides of the Cadar Idris range rose to my right behind the village of Tywyn. I imagined someone was up there looking down at me toiling past – for a moment I wished it was me. Suddenly a wall of broken water came crashing towards me. Where had that come from? I jabbed my left paddle blade into it and bracing on the sides of the cockpit with my thighs, leaned my head and the boat as far as I could into the wave. I bounced into the shore. How stupid! I had spent so long day-dreaming, gazing up at the mountains that I had let myself steer inside the break line and get clobbered by a set wave. Having been so rudely awoken I set about paddling with renewed vigour, determined to make Barmouth by the end of the day.
The apex of the bend was actually the mouth of a small river that came down from the mountains, tumbling over boulders into the sea. Clearing the rocky point I turned east and the wind was at last no longer against me but on my side and I could relax a little and enjoy the view. This quiet stretch of coast leading up to the LleynPeninsula is very beautiful with a panoramic mountainous backdrop. Time was dragging on and I was going to be late arriving at Barmouth. I radioed the Coastguard to advise them of my intention to push on. I had now left the area covered by Milford Haven and entered Holyhead Coastguard’s district. So far I had found the Coastguard to be very helpful and encouraging and somewhat surprised at the distances I was able to cover each day.
The sun was setting as I came into Barmouth, the flooding tide flowing fast through the narrow entrance to the Afon Mawddach. Having completed a quick visit to the loo collected some fresh water and I was sorted, leaving the quiet town I paddled back across the river to find a campsite, the temperature dropping rapidly as the sun went down. As I crossed the tongue of fast water to a spit of sand and gravel on the far side where I intended to camp the lifeboat was towing a stricken yacht in through the river mouth. The lifeboat crew were clearly back at it despite their recent tragedy. Finding a small but perfectly comfortable spot to pitch the tent with a cracking view across the estuary to the mountains of Cadair Idris (Chair of Idris – from the giant warrior poet of Welsh legend) I got settled down for the night. It was dark well before I had finished my meal and my diary would have to wait for another day.
The wind had not abated during the night. I had a 16 nautical mile crossing to do from Barmouth to St Tudwal’s Islands on the south side of the LleynPeninsula. The wind had backed south westerly as forecasted though and this meant it would be on my beam and the crossing was on. I waited for high water slack at around 9am as there seemed little point leaving any earlier and fighting the tide out of the river mouth. Tide was not really a feature on the crossing itself; it was just going to be a case of point and paddle. The wind would have much more of a say and I knew it was likely to get lumpy in the middle. I got into an early rhythm and soon left Barmouth behind me in the distance. As I came out into the bay the vista of Snowdonia was laid out to my right. The highest peaks were topped with snow which explained the chill on the backs of my hands. It was still April after all. It was one of those crossings where everything felt great. I felt strong, I could see roughly were I was going, the wind was not a major hassle and the sun shone from a blue sky dotted with cumulus. It was glorious and I was in high spirits. I knew the crossing would save a lot of miles and prevent me from falling further behind my schedule. I was fairly relaxed about being behind, I knew I had paddled as far as I could for as long as I could each day and I felt I was doing okay. I told myself the weather should get better as we got closer to summer and there was plenty of time to catch up and even get ahead of schedule if I could.
I was effectively on a close reach across the bay and couldn’t help but start thinking about what I wanted to do in the future with my life. Whilst I knew I would always want to paddle kayaks and there were a couple more trips that I would still want to do after this one, I also knew my body would not take this sort of punishment forever and I decided what was next on my list of things to do before I die. I could hear close friends groaning as they read this and my wife Linda will despair, but I really fancy doing some solo sailing. I have read many sailing books and many of my heroes are those sailors such as Pete Goss and of course our Ellen, whose book I read from cover to cover in a couple of days. I would like to think I have the self discipline and determination to do what they have done and I know I have left it a bit late at the age of 40 but I decided then, as I paddled far from land that this was what I wanted to do next, to sail alone on the ocean. Let’s face it, even a race like the Vendee Globe does not take six months to complete. I was only just over two weeks into a 26week expedition and I was already deciding on what I wanted to do next! I also knew that I would probably have changed my mind several times before I got back home to reality and the mortgage!
The wide bay was teeming with birdlife; scooter ducks, red breasted mergansers, manx shearwaters and gannets all kept me entertained along with the usual guillemots and razorbills. Conditions deteriorated as I closed on St Tudwal’s Islands. I decided to head into Abersoch, to find shelter before making a decision whether to go on or to stay put. The next stretch, past Hells Mouth down to the tip of the Lleyn Peninsular was likely to be very exposed to the south west wind and swell and I was not confident of finding anywhere I could land safely. I passed between the islands and pulled up on a small beach in a private cove. It had been a superb crossing and time seemed to have flown by. It was still fairly early in the afternoon and it seemed a shame to call it a day so soon. I rang the coastguard for their advice. A strong wind warning was in force, with a F7 forecasted. It was probably not far short of that already. They suggested it would be prudent to stay where I was and I agreed. I went in search of a place to camp. The tide was yet to turn and the long curved beach of soft golden sand around to Abersoch was very beautiful to look at but horrible from my point of view. It was a couple of hundred metres from the water’s edge to the high water mark and that meant a long carry. This was the first occasion when a trolley for my kayak would have been a good idea. I identified my spot on the beach at the end of a line of big boulders placed to defend the sand dunes from erosion. Half an hour’s effort and I was sorted, gear strewn over the rocks and fence drying in the afternoon sun. I even got my iSun solar charger out and recharged my mobile phone – it worked a treat – thank you Dashmount!
I had a flawless view from my tent across the bay that I had just paddled and over to Snowdonia. Dog walkers and couples strolled by, all giving a friendly wave. No-one seemed to care that I had turned their beach into a laundry and one chap who runs a wakeboarding business from the beach offered me a shower. Again I had to decline, reluctant to leave all my gear unattended, but the offer was greatly appreciated! I had set my sights on reaching Holy Island on Anglesey by the end of Wednesday, where I had the offer of accommodation at AngleseySea and Surf Centre run by Nigel Dennis. I would have to stay smelly until then. The wind died as the evening drew to a close but the heavens opened and Snowdonia was obscured by heavy dark clouds. I typed until the battery died on my laptop – the diary would have to wait until I arrived on Anglesey.
The bay was flat calm, hardly a breath of wind when I awoke for the inshore waters forecast at 0535hrs. The forecast was for southerly 5-6 veering south west 7 later. Just how much later I wondered? I had a committing paddle ahead of me – out around St Tudwal’s Island (I had discovered from chatting to a local that Bear Grylls, adventurer and the youngest person to climb Everest had purchased the forty-year lease of the lighthouse and used it as a holiday home, arguably making it inhabited) and then across to Bardsey Island with its notorious tide races and overfalls. I have to confess that I had rather neglected Bardsey during my planning phase. I was not even sure it was inhabited but had decided it would be worth having a look anyway. I had no detailed information on tidal streams around the island and this was to prove a mistake. I knew the tide would be flooding north throughout the morning and I was underway by 8am. The wind had already picked up from a flat calm to a steady breeze. Once out around St Tudwal’s I headed due west for Bardsey, keeping a close eye on my compass to see how the tide was affecting my course. There was a strong flow towards the tip of the LleynPeninsula and Bardsey Sound with Bardsey island like a footstool for the giants who reputedly inhabit the mountains of the LleynPeninsula.. The wind was increasing all the time but remained as predicted from the south so it was not too much of an issue. The swell increased the further west I went and over an underwater feature called Devil’s Ridge the peaks began to collapse in front of me. It was good fun and my kayak went airborne several times as I launched off the top of the oncoming swells.
The high cliffs of Bardsey’s east coast loomed large and the lighthouse winked at me from the southern tip. I suddenly became aware of the lighthouse disappearing as I was being taken north. Okay, as expected, I just need to point a bit further south. I tried to regain sight of the lighthouse but instead I was losing more ground to the north. Paddling as hard as I could I made no impression on the Pen y Cil tide race that leads into Bardsey Sound and eventually had to admit defeat and instead of hoping to make it into the bay near the lighthouse, I had to make do with fighting my way into the eddy formed on the north side of the island. As I crossed the fastest part of the stream which must have been at least six knots or more, I had to sprint to make the breakout. Wow – I hadn’t expected that – I should have given an island whose Welsh name is Ynys Enlli ‘the island in the tides’ a bit more respect. Determined to stick to my principle of keeping the land on my right I worked up through eddies that had formed tight against the cliffs. Paddling on a knife edge between the churning ‘river’ of water on my left and the waves crashing on the rocks to my right I gingerlymade my way up the side of the island, apologising for disturbing the guillemots and razorbills that launched themselves off the cliffs as I approached. I felt really guilty as I would not normally paddle so close to the cliffs but here I had absolutely no choice other than to turn back and my stubborn nature refused to do that. I reconciled the fact that I was probably causing no more disturbance than the fishing boats that attend to the lobster pots dotted along the coast but it still doesn’t make me feel good about the disruption I caused to this pristine place.
Finally released from the grip of the tide I paddled into the shelter of the small landing bay occupied by a solitary but very modern fishing boat and numerous seals bottling (floating vertically with just their noses above the surface) and peacefully asleep. The presence of the fishing boat suggested the island was inhabited and I was relieved that I had decided to include it in my circumnavigation. Indeed there are several farms on the west side of Bardsey, which bathed in warm sunshine, sheltered from the wind by the hill behind.
Bardsey Island, the Isle of 20,000 Saints is a jewell in Snowdonia’s crown and definitely worth a visit but take it from me; have a good look at what the tide and weather is doing and plan your crossing accordingly. Hut circles suggest that the the island had been inhabited since ancient times and even at the turn of the 20th century there were 100 inhabitants farming the land. During the 16th and 17th centuries it was a base for pirates but now the island’s more law-abiding residents number just three but the island retains a wild and independent spirit. Christopher Wordsworth wrote of Bardsey:
“This is truly an enchanted place, a place of ancient blessing – when words have blown away like spindrift you hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
My time on Bardsey was all too brief. I took some hasty photographs with my digital camera – my Canon A1 waterproof 35mm camera had stopped working – what a time for it to pack up! The front that would bring the strong winds was clearly visible to the south and it would inevitably catch me up soon. I wanted to be well inshore by then. I had the tide with me as I paddled down the west coast of Bardsey and back into the Sound. I could still see the tide flowing strongly to the north through the Sound so not wishing to get swept too far offshore I ferry glided across the fastest part of the current and then let it take me towards Braich y Pwll, the western tip of the Lleyn peninsula. That worked well until I came across an area of disturbed water – it seemed to be flowing in the opposite direction! It must be a huge eddy in the middle of the sound. I had wondered if such an eddy existed and whether I should stay offshore to use the flood up the north side of the peninsula. I had decided against it because of the strong wind forecast, wishing to stay in the shelter afforded by the high cliffs. The eddy was almost as powerful as the main stream and as I closed on the point I was making very little headway. Right on the point, just feet from the cliffs the swell was lifted by the opposing current and as I surfed down the face of a six foot wave I glanced to my right and was shocked to see that I was stationary relative to the land. I had to sprint flat out to make any headway at all and inched towards a small notch in the cliffs that I hoped would give me respite. I surfed another wave and finally made it into the breakout. I was sweating profusely and laughed nervously. Okay so what would have happened if I hadn’t made it? Well it would not have been the end of the world, but it would have meant either a long wait for the tide to slacken or a long detour to get back out into the main flood. I had spotted a solitary figure watching me from the cliff top. I waved to say I was okay. Hands in pockets the spectator was clearly unimpressed with my antics and walked off without returning my gesture. So now, despite a good flood tide in my favour a mile or so offshore, I had to battle against this massive eddy for the next hour or more. The eddy eventually slackened and I pulled in for a bite to eat. It was now a cold and grey afternoon on this remote part of the welsh coast and there was hardly a soul around. I only had seals for company, not that I minded since they are quite friendly once you get to know them. They make a big splash when they first see you but cannot help their inquisitive nature and would follow me just feet behind the stern of the kayak until I had departed from their territory.
The adrenalin had long gone from my veins and it was along slow plod to my destination for the day, a small bay shown on the map by the village of Trefor. The wind was now blasting offshore and I was quite relieved to be in the relative shelter afforded by the low cliffs. Maybe I had made the right decision after all. As I neared Trefor I passed beneath the bulk of Yr Eifl, her heavily scarred flanks of scree and quarry waste tumbling steeply to the sea. The wind was swirling around the mountain and gusts came from all directions threatening to tear my paddles from my tired arms. The quarrying has long finished but the remains of the workings looked liken a set from ‘Lord of the Rings’ – I expected an Auk to appear at any moment. Maybe it had been Frodo I had seen on the cliff top back along? There was a sinister feel to the small village of Trefor as I arrived, the tide was still out and all I could see was rock. I passed the beneath the impressive fortifications of the pier and wondered why it possessed such a large structure for such a small harbour (it was used to load granite from the nearby quarry). My impression of my temporary home changed when I spotted a narrow strip of sand which led up to a perfect little campsite on grass covered sand dune. Ideal! It was cold and raining but I soon had my tent up and with the mountain blocking the worst of the wind it was a great spot to spend a night. I called at a bungalow and asked for some water – they were very friendly telling me about two women (Fiona Whitehead and Jemma Rawlings) who had stopped by and camped on the beach the previous year whilst circumnavigating Wales, paddling up the coast to the River Dee then linking through the canal system down to the River Severn. What a great idea! What we don’t realise is that there are people out there doing all sorts of stuff that we just don’t get to hear about. Instead all we get through the media is football every night. Now I like a good game as much as anyone but it is almost as if there is no other sport out there. And don’t get me onto how much footballers get paid – its obscene!
I had hoped for a drop in the wind overnight but the forecast was bad – F7 to 8, again from the south west. I had a 10mile crossing of Caernarfon Bay to do over to the island of Anglesey. I rang Nigel Dennis for advice. Nigel is one of the foremost sea paddlers in the UK having completed the first ever circumnavigation of Great Britain with Paul Caffyn in 1980 and knows more about sea kayaking in these parts than anyone and he thought I would be alright if I stayed fairly close to the shore. I had to cross the western entrance to the Menai Straits and I was concerned that the flood tide might try to push me too far northeast and into the Straits themselves. I hugged the coast until the angle of dangle of the wind was about right and taking a gamble on what conditions would be like on the lee shore struck out across Caernarfon Bay steering slightly west of the lighthouse just visible across the bay on Llanddwyn Island. The wind was very strong, threatening to rip the paddles out of my hands so for the first time on the trip I hooked on my paddle leash just in case. The swell was not too bad initially and I was soon across the bay and passing the starboard buoy at the entrance to the Straits. The tide seemed to be having little effect, the wind a much greater force. As I passed LLanddwyn Island it looked a beautifully peaceful spot. A large cross had been erected next to the lighthouse. I am not a religious person in the conventional sense but I did say a little prayer, giving thanks for my safe passage thus far and requesting that the deity responsible keep an eye on me for the rest of my journey.
With the crossing done I relaxed a little. Pulling my hood up to protect my head from the wind-driven blasts of spray I headed ever northwards up the west coast of Anglesey. The swell was getting very large, even by Cornish standards. It is always difficult to put a size on it and I am always skeptical when I hear descriptions of waves the size of houses. All I will say is that during the next couple of hours I found out what my threshold was in terms of the size of swell that I was prepared to be out in on my own. What made it dangerous was the fact that the tops of the swells were starting to collapse and I knew that if I found myself under a big boomer then I would be in big trouble. I pulled my hood down again as I need to be able to hear as well as see them coming. A couple of times I found myself under water as a wave collapsed onto me. This was not good. I had reached my limit and I wanted to get off the water. The problem was that I was in unfamiliar territory and had no idea if there was a safe beach that I could come in on. I had been heading for Trearddur Bay which is closest to Nigel Dennis’ place but I had failed to ask the obvious question – could I land there with this size of swell running? A stupid mistake but surely Nigel would have said had he not thought I would be able to get ashore? What if he hadn’t seen the sea today and hadn’t realised how big the swell was? Where else could I get in? All these thoughts were racing through my mind as I doggedly continued my way up the coast. A reef blocked my path with huge explosions of white water as the swell crashed full tilt into the exposed rock. There was a gap on the inside and with careful timing I thought I would be alright. I stalled waiting for a set to come through, and as the last big wave collapsed in an avalanche of of foam I went for it, paddling quite literally as if my life depended on it. I was through in a flash and feeling quite pleased with myself, my confidence began to recover. It only took another thumping from a breaking wave to get my nerves jangling again and I began to formulate a plan. I could not be certain that I could land at Tearddur Bay. I would not be able to paddle back against this wind and I certainly did not want to go beyond Trearddur Bay as the tide would have turned against me by then and with wind against tide conditions things would get even worse. I decided to head into Cymyran Bay and try to find the way into the narrow entrance to the Sound between Holy Island and Anglesey. Surely there would be some navigation buoys that would mark the deep water channel? As I paddled into the bay all I could see was the surf dumping on the beach or onto the series of reefs that protrude out from the shore. I could see RAF Valley, the RAF equivalent of Top Gun. Jets had been buzzing me for the last couple of days and helicopters flew low above the base. I knew the entrance to the Sound was there somewhere but I just could not find a way in with surf breaking all around me. I was being blown in too close and had to make a decision soon. Suddenly I spotted a corner of beach on the southern shore of Holy Island protected by a reef where the breaking waves were small enough to allow me to land safely. I went for it, just happy to get ashore; I had been at my limit for long enough. I walked up the beach to find out where I was – SilverBayBeach it told me on the notice board. I rang Nigel. He told me I had landed on a private beach and that it would be difficult to come and get me. Could I make it around to Roscolyn, the next beach further north where he assured me I would be able to land safely? Reluctantly I got back on the water and with the wind now against me I had to pull hard to make my way around to the Bay he had described. It was much better heading into the swell though and I felt much safer. I was able to make it easily into the perfect horse shoe cove at Roscolyn where I landed and waited to be picked up by a member of Nigel’s team. I felt a little silly having fallen short of my intended destination but when sea kayak instructor Pete Jones arrived to collect me he reassured me that the next headland would have been tricky now that the tide was turning against the wind.
Pete whisked me back to the Anglesey Sea and Surf Centre, an outdoor pursuits centre that I had heard much about but never had the good fortune to visit. Much larger than I had imagined it is a large wooden chalet style building on a breeze block base. Purpose built by Nigel as a residential centre it has all the facilities you need. My high speed tour of the coast in the minibus from Roscolyn up to Trearddur Bay gave me a glimpse of the glorious coastline on offer to those wishing to join one of Nigel’s courses. Nigel showed me to a room with an en suite refusing to let me pay for my stay. In fact he and his staff could not have been more helpful and I made the most of the opportunity to recharge my batteries and those of the laptop by choosing to take a rest day the following day.
Nigel took me to a pub in Holyhead that evening and we chatted about future plans including a project that I had been talking about for several years – an attempt to circumnavigate the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. I had first put together a plan in 2002 but was unable to attract sufficient sponsorship. The main difficulty is that quite understandably the government insist on expeditions having a dedicated support vessel on standby for the duration of the expedition. 800miles from the Falkland Islands, South Georgia is one of the most remote places on the planet and has no search and rescue facilities of its own. Several previous mountaineering expeditions have got into difficulty and have necessitated Royal navy ships being diverted from their duties to effect a rescue at huge cost to the British tax payer. The only option is to charter a yacht and there are only a handful of skippers with the right boat, skills and experience necessary to be able to provide such support and they charge around £1000 a day! Since the expedition would take in excess of 30days it is a huge financial undertaking and required a minimum budget of £50k to make it happen. Nigel was certainly interested in the challenge and it was good to talk it through with someone with his experience. Nigel had paddled in some very remote places including Cape Horn and the first circumnavigation of Easter Island.
[It transpired that in 2005 Nigel was successful in getting down to South Georgia with a team that included Peter Bray, Jeff Allen and Hadas Feldman, but even before they left the UK they had been beaten in the race to become the first to circumnavigate the island by a team of three New Zealanders, Graham Charles, Marcus Waters and Mark Jones who threw caution to the wind and completed their circumnavigation in bitter conditions in October 2005]
Glorious sunshine welcomed me when awoke the next day along with a brisk breeze. Should I stay or should I go? My body and perhaps more importantly my mind needed a rest so I opted to stay and got on with my ‘jobs’, which included a couple of minor gel repairs to the hull of the kayak and doing my washing – my clothes had begun to develop a rather unique smell peculiar to sea kayak expeditions. I spent the rest of the day catching up on my diary but I only had to stop for a day and I was itching to get going again. It was a good sign and my motivation for the journey ahead was undiminished I knew I had a spectacular and committing paddle the following day around the north coast of Anglesey with its tide races and skerries. Nigel very generously leant me a tiny trolley for my kayak and gave me a fleece top to paddle in. He was an excellent host and I resolved to return to Anglesey the following summer for the annual symposium.
The north coast of Anglesey is renown as a sea kayaker’s playground with numerous tide races, sea caves and islands to visit. Unfortunately I knew I was going to blast past many of the good bits in my pursuit of mileage. Pete kindly dropped me back down to Roscolyn to the exact spot I had landed two days previous. The south westerly breeze had increased once more overnight and a weak sun did its best to penetrate the blanket of cloud covering the north west of the British Isles. Hunkered down in the shelter behind a lichen covered stone wall I did an interview for BBC Radio Cornwall. I much prefer radio interviews than being filmed for television. There is something about having a camera in my face that puts me right off what I want to say but with radio it is just like talking to a friend and you forget that there are hundreds, even thousands listening. Once that was done I was on the water straight away to make the most of the flood tide that I hoped would carry me most of the way around the north coast of Anglesey. Roscolyn Head was lumpy and bumpy but not nearly as bad as it would have been two days ago. Soon I was in the main stream and crossing Trearddur Bay heading for the tide race off Penrhyn Mawr. I could see the line of white ahead of me and was uncertain what to expect. As I got closer I could see the waves breaking on rocks a hundred metres or so off the headland so I steered clear, aiming for the middle of the race. It was a theme park ride of a tide race, no major hazards; just big, bouncing waves. Once through I set my sights on the next obstacle South Stack, the second most photographed landmark on Anglesey after the Menai Bridge. The tall white lighthouse and associated buildings occupy a rocky islet only accessible across a small cable and wire suspension bridge. Above the lighthouse the high cliffs of Holyhead Mountain dropped sheer to the sea with numerous arches and caves for the adventurous paddler to explore.
I was pleased to see both the normal ferry and the SeaCat fast ferry depart Holyhead and head west to Ireland. At least I wouldn’t have to look out for them as I crossed the entrance to the harbour. The eddy line was clear and defined as I passed South Stack. I stayed out, in the main flow, allowing it to carry me up past North Stack, it far less dramatic neighbour. I hardly had a chance to give it a second look as the tide whisked me past, my bow now pointing at the lighthouse on The Skerries, a collection of rocky islets two miles north west of Carmel Head. Although it seemed like a detour out, it did ensure I stayed in the main flow and avoided the huge swirling eddy that forms in HolyheadBay. With the tide running at around four knots I was soon approaching the islets and was keen not to be swept past on the inside as I sensed the tide was likely to be wanting to push me from left to right across the front of the lighthouse. I was right and snapping a photo at the last minute, managed to surf a series of waves that took me to the seaward side of the islets, adhering to my principle of ‘keeping the land on the right’. In amongst the islets was a sheltered cove with a shingle beach. I took a quick comfort break but in the few short minutes I was on land, the beach started to disappear as the tide rose and water came pouring through the gaps in the rocks. A gang of ten or more seals had been curiously watching my every move but I was soon off again, heading due east, still being transported by the powerful tide. The only snag now was that the wind which had been nicely on my back up to now was on by beam, forcing me to lean into it as it increased in strength pushing me out to sea. Nigel Dennis had warned me about the big eddy that ran west along this section of coast close to the shore. I was keen to stay in the main stream but this meant being exposed to the full force of the wind.
The Wylfa nuclear power station dominates the north coast. I was pleased to see a sprinkling of wind farms too but I thought it ironic that by far the greatest natural resource was flowing right past, completely untapped. Tidal energy is both reliable and predictable, much more so than wind energy. It cannot be beyond the wit of man to harness it in a way that is cost effective and does not adversely affect the marine environment. Above all, a series of floating barges tethered to the sea bed would give another point of interest for passing sea kayakers.
Having left the power station astern I felt the tide slowing and the wind increasing. It was time to move inshore. Ideally I would have stayed well out to catch the last of the flood but the wind was becoming very irritating and making it uncomfortable to paddle. I worked my way slowly inshore and as predicted by Nigel, found the flow going in the opposite direction. I had to fight wind and tide now but it was the lesser of two evils. Hugging the low cliffs I nipped and tucked my way to Point Lynas where I turned 90 degrees due south down the north east coast of Anglesey and back towards the Welsh mainland. The wind was square in my face now and for the next couple of hours I was made to work for every inch of every mile south. What was supposed to have been a short easy day was turning into a hard slog. It felt unfair as I knew the majority of the rest of the country was experiencing fine weather. There was a little bit of blue sky now as the clouds parted down wind of the mountains of Snowdonia and at least the wind was warm on my face. I was tempted to stop short of my goal; the village of Moelfre but I suspected the wind would be the same again tomorrow and every mile done now was a mile saved for tomorrow. With the bit firmly between my teeth I went on past Moelfre and found a pukka campsite overlooking Red Wharf Bay.
I pitched the tent on the smooth cut grass on the thinnest of soils – could I get a peg to stay in the ground? They would need to as it was still very windy. Several other campers popped by to say hello and ask me what it was all about. My neighbours in a very large, very flash camper van brought me a bottle of Stella. The warden came around to collect the £15 fee for one night (ouch!) but when he saw that I was raising money for charity said I could camp for free as long as I didn’t tell anyone!
As I wrote my diary I received a phone call from Steve, the mechanic at Fleetwood Lifeboat Station. He told me he had my food box and expected to see me on the following Sunday. I texted Dave Nicoll from the RNLI to say ‘thanks’. It was good to know they were expecting me.